Riding With Jonah Hex: Darwyn Cooke
Darwyn Cooke on Jonah Hex
Matt Brady suggested I interview Eisner award winner Darwyn Cooke to promote this new issue of Jonah Hex on the stands this week and I jumped at the chance. Darwyn and I have known each other for a few good years and the first time I remember meeting him was giving him a lift out of New Jersey from a party and, as he repeatedly reminds me, trying to dump him by the New York side of the Holland Tunnel. Since then we have become good friends and as with any friendship, we are finally getting to work together. Don’t believe all the rumors about this guy…ok, believe some of them…but take a good look at the labor of love my friend…you are witnessing a modern master at work with each new book he takes on. I sat with Darwyn and threw a couple of questions his way and as usual, we couldn’t keep on target for very long.
Jimmy Palmiotti: As a creative force in the industry, a writer/artist who can do whatever kind of project he desires, what prompted you to jump onboard for an issue of Jonah Hex?
Darwyn Cooke: The money, baby, the money. Actually, it was a chance to work with yourself and Justin, who I quite admire. Superstuff aside, you really hit my radar with books like 21 Down and Monolith. It seemed you were some of the only guys really trying to create new ideas. Talking to you two, it quickly becomes apparent that Hex is a labor of love.
So one drink led to another and the next thing you knew, we were doing Hex. As long as we’re fawning over each other, why did you guys want me on Hex?
Justin Gray: I’ve wanted to work with you after we met a few years back, we signed next to each other at the DC booth you were still perfecting that giant superhero book about frontiers or something, I forget the title. That whole winning of awards thing is cool too, but it is more fun to bust your balls about having a mantle full of excellence trophies. Once you made a casual comment about wanting to maybe do an issue of Hex it was all over, we were going to lure you into it one way or another.
JP: Justin and I have been fans of your work for a while…and when you won all those Eisner’s, we both thought right then it was time to ask you to draw an issue of Jonah Hex. We figured if you agreed to, we would finally have something done with our names on it that would actually get looked at. Really…any awards would do …we just need some to show off to our friends already. Seriously, as you can tell with Jonah Hex, we gravitate towards storytellers and you were on our short list of dream artists after Joe Kubert and Jordi Bernet. At least Jordi stepped up to the plate and is doing a bunch more, but that Kubert guy is next to impossible to nail. You think he has better things to do with his time. Anyway, we asked you but never thought you would actually be interested. We’re very glad you did, but somehow I have a feeling it’s a favor I will be repaying for the rest of my life.
Anyway, it is fairly well known that we tailor the style and themes of our Jonah Hex scripts for individual artists. What in this story hits you the right and wrong way?
DC: One night in San Diego last year, I gave Justin my “laundry list” for a Hex story. It had to take place in Canada, it had to break the cliché of the squeaky-clean Mountie, it had to feature a knife fight with wolves and so on. Two weeks or so later, I’ll be damned if the script didn’t appear, better than I’d hoped. You boys took my caveats and made them window dressing to what is one of the best stories they’ve written. That main story is pure J&J and it’s what elevates the issue to something resonant.
What you two Einstein’s did get wrong is screw up was the weather. Why is it that every Yank out there thinks that you step over the border and there’s a blizzard? We do have summer here-grass and swimming pools and even air conditioners. The problem was the weather is such a plot engine that I had to go with it. Graphically, it was great fun to play with the snow.
JG: Come on, every Yankee knows Canada is the great white north it…always snows and you people live in igloos and wear parkas in August.
JP: Everyone knows Canada is famous for its swimming pools and bacon. Anyway, you’ve worked in a number of different genres and styles from the superhero epic New Frontier to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, but is this your first western? Is it a genre you’ve wanted to work on in the past?
DC: Like most guys my age, I grew up devouring westerns. Eastwood, Bronson, Peckinpah, Hawks, Ford, Zane Gray and Elmore Leonard spring to mind. In comics, there were some outstanding Western books, including the original run of Jonah Hex. Getting a shot at this is up there for me. Hex is a perfect character.
JP: Is there another character out there in comics that you would like a shot at?
DC: Actually, there aren’t many. Maybe the Jim Corrigan Spectre, Nick Fury, and the Metal Men spring to mind.
JP: I agree, I would jump at the chance to write a Spectre book or classic Streranko Nick Fury. A classic Nick Fury/Black Widow bond theme adventure would be a dream book for me. Axel, are you getting this down? Anyway, As usual with Jonah Hex, this isn’t a traditional American Western as people expect it, can you tell us about the story that you drew and what you found appealing about illustrating it?
DC: The story’s power lays in its ability to be both heartfelt and heartless at the same time. There is a remarkable slow build to the final scene and it is one hard ending. Like I told you when I read it, this bitch out-Shanes Shane.
JP: That’s nice of you to say. You’re always so nice to me. Why do you think we get along so well? Is it the way I light up a room?
DC: You are, by my estimation, a sainted creature. A veritable Jersey Buddhist. You understand the world around you in ways that I admire, and your heart is a mighty, mighty thing.
JP: I am flattered you think that way. Embarrassed almost.
JG: I think I’m gonna puke. You two gonna hug it out now?
DC: While we’re asking, I’m widely described by our peers on a scale that starts with difficult and ends with insane. Why do you hang with a guy who is so different from yourself?
JP: Deep down, I think we have a ton in common. We both came from an advertising background, dated more then 10 women in our lifetime, love movies, art and traveling and have a deep appreciation of being in the moment when we are in the middle it all. You and I definitely have different views of things, and different tastes, but really, there no one I’d rather sit with after a con and reminisce with. The thing is, people only meet you for a little at a time and judge you on snippets of information they may have heard or read about you…and we all go through that type of scrutiny now and again and come up with a raw deal at times. In the end, we are both no b.s guys that tell it like it is. You just tell it with a little more passion than I do. Honestly, you have more patience than most people seem to give you credit for.
JG: Going back to the signing we did together in San Diego, I was hung over and as usual for that condition I was being a smart ass, giving you a hard time and you just kept laughing. I thought you’d get annoyed but you didn’t. At that point I thought, here’s a case of a guy whose work I absolutely love and he’s not a dick or an ego-maniac. Instead this Darwyn guy is a snappy dresser with a sense of humor, a generosity and a wealth of knowledge.
DC: Its like I always tell Dan, I’m only really hard on the editors. Fans and the friends I work with get all the love.
JP: The morality in a Jonah Hex story tends to be murky and unconventional, a kind of dark fable set in the Old West. Is this something you can relate to on a personal level?
DC: Actually…no. I love Hex as a character, but to have to countenance such an individual-I’d want to put him down like a dog, for everybody’s sake.
Let me ask you-There are times in the series where I’m shocked by how dark things get. I don’t know if I could write that type of story. Why do you feel this approach is historically important?
JP: The history of the west is told and retold in such a colorful way that people seem to forget how brutal and thankless those times were and how segregated the people of the day were as well. With Jonah, we try to reflect the time as best as we can and not make the title seem generic in any way, and to do this, all someone really has to do is look at the true history of how people survived back then and you can’t avoid all the depressingly dark components. There have been some lighter themed stories, but somewhere in there, a darkness always looms. In the end, we always want to entertain and stay true to Jonahs dark nature.
JG: The darker aspects of human behavior fascinate me and I watch or read a lot of true crime stories. The thing is if the Backpack killer in Australia can get away with killing a dozen people in the 1990’s, with modern criminology techniques and information superhighways, just how sick did things get a hundred years ago? Hex to me is this kind of equalizing force of justice, a man acutely aware of how sick the world can be and in his own way he’s balancing the scales by being sicker and more violent than the people he’s after. Hex is the man who will do things no one in polite society will do, they might think it, but that doesn’t solve problems.
JP: personally, there are very few superhero comics that get my dollar each month. Working on something that isn’t a superhero book can cause most artists and writers to go looking for other non -superhero books. Is this the case? Should there be more variety in this storytelling medium or do you feel there is already?
DC: I’d like to think so, and if we look outside the direct market you’ll see its already in full bloom. There has been an explosion of great books from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to American Born Chinese to Thirty Days of Night to Scott Pilgrim. The one thing they have in common is they offer mainstream audiences subject matter that is of interest to them.
I hope to join this part of the business over the next year and consider cultivating new audiences our number one long-term goal as creators.
JP: So why do you personally feel this is a responsibility you have to take on?
DC: I feel passionate, forward thinking creators have an obligation to try and help grow the market. Also, I just want to be were the action is. To me, the action right now is in the bookstores and the mass market.
JP: Agree 100% . When I go into my local bookstore chains, I always complain about a few books not being in stock…new frontier is actually one and I am shocked each and every time that it doesn’t get reordered. For me, Jonah Hex would do better in the bookstores if the design of the trade want pushed like a comic collection and given a more graphic look. I just bought the Hellboy hardcover, and its design was pure, clean and had a beautiful presentation, which is everything in that market. Personally, a hard cover collection of hex with this type of treatment might have better results in the long run. Things need to be changed and worked up differently.
JP: I have a top five list of my favorite colorists (yes Paul Mounts, I love you), and Dave Stewart is one of them. I was lucky enough to get Dave to color the Spirit story I wrote that Jordi Bernet illustrated. Tell me what Dave does in this story that you might not have done.
DC: Dave brings an organic and human patina to what are often very stark black and white images. He is also capable of creating totally unique palettes for a scene. Very few guys can do this well. Dave is the master.
JP: I agree 100%. I actually look at his work when doing some personal coloring on my computer. The first work of his that really caught my eye was on the beautiful creeper series that Cliff Chang worked on. I thought the two of them together were a lethal combo.
JP: I was thinking about this the other day since I am coming to the end of mine…do you feel exclusive comic book contracts with companies make sense anymore?
DC: If you have a family and you are American…well yes, I suppose so. Health coverage is a bitch. Otherwise, I find it a limiting situation.
JP: I agree, for some it works…I find that half of my time is spent looking for work in other places…but that can be very rewarding as well. Health coverage is a horrible burden to every freelancer I know in the states. It’s such a shame. I think maybe I should move to Canada. Will they have a guy like me?
DC: Yes. We would welcome even a wretch such as yourself. Plus, if Canada got Amanda Conner, that’d make up for it.
JG: I want to live in an igloo too!
DC: You come up here Justin, and that’s exactly where you’ll end up.
JP: What are the “do’s and don’ts “ that fans should stick to when meeting a professional like yourself at a con?
DC: As Mike Manley would say, “Don’t be a babyman.” I do everything I can to accommodate my readers-I love you all-if you’ve waited to meet me I want it to be a great moment between us but if you’re over 30 and you put that wounded child face on because I can’t drop everything to draw you Batman…well, that embarrasses both of us.
JP: I agree. Most fans are great, but if I have to deal with another guy asking me to draw Painkiller Jane in a tight t-shirt in his soon to be born baby’s sketch book, I just might explode in their direction. The rule I have is that I will sign as many books people bring me at a con…but I won’t sign doubles anymore. If retailers need their books signed, I am glad to help. The best thing a fan can bring me to sign is a complete run of a book I have done. That’s fabulous.
JG: One thing I always notice about you at a show is that you’re fair when you deal with everyone. Unfortunately some people will cross the line of good taste and behavior, at which point I grab the popcorn and watch you school them in con etiquette. Amazingly it is never mean spirited. I tend to be mean, while hung over and tired from lack of sleep for three days. Of course I’m anti-social.
JP: What’s the worst fan experience you ever had?
DC: I once had food poisoning and was basically carried to my panel at a show. By the end of the panel I was in bad shape. Sweats, fever and a real need to hit the head. This fan comes up and blocks our passage (my buddy Fletcher from DC was hauling my carcass out) and asks for a sketch. I explain I can’t right now, and he won’t let us by. He is kinda begging for the sketch and I tell him I’m sick and have to go lie down. I swear, he just keeps going like I hadn’t said a thing. He followed us down the hall after Fletcher finally got us past him, and it just didn’t let up until I was rude to the guy. I was kinda delirious and my memories of it are somewhat surreal.
By and large though, I have great fans and readers. Going to a show and meeting all these wonderful people is one of the real bright points of what we do. These days I must meet 100 to 200 people in a day at a con, and there are usually only one or two guys who can be a bit sticky. To me, those are great odds.
JP: O.K, time for some quick questions. Where did the name “ Mr. neutral” come from?
DC: I believe it refers to my objective and some might say even deferential nature.
JP: Are there any plans for you to return to Jonah Hex in the future?
DC: Yes. The problem is, my choices are all quality-based. It might take a while for you two to type something that good a second time. LOL
JG: Care to wager some of that funny Canadian money on it?
DC: As usual, the Americans in the crowd are not up to speed. These days that funny money fetches a buck ten of that Yankee dollar y’all love so much.
JP: I heard you got your own booth at San Diego con and will be premiering a new hard cover, full color collection of your work. Is it a limited print run?
DC: Thanks for asking, Pluggy Pluggerton. I will have a booth in SD with two old friends, David Bullock and Cameron Stewart. All three of us will be premiering Artbooks and the runs are very limited. About a week out from the con, we’ll drop all the details and some preview art. We’ve also got a pretty unbelievable list of guests dropping by to sign, including your fine self.
JP: that’s going to be fun actually. I got a panel Friday for midway games pushing the mortal kombat game Justin and I co wrote. Hey, you did call me pluggy pluggerton?
DC: Would you prefer Shillbert Shillington?
JP: I prefer Mr. Bond, thank you. Other than San Diego, what’s the most fun con to go to each year and why?
DC: Sophie’s choice. Wonder Con, Megacon and Heroes Con all have my heart.
JP: Megacon is first on my list because it’s run perfectly and has the widest range of fans and this year a lot of the panels are focusing on creating comics panels, which I think is really cool. After that I love wondercon, but only get invited every every years. Maybe this bit of whoreing might change that. Heroes was a blast, Baltimore is great and San Diego…I just love that storm of madness.
JG: I’m actually sad that I’m not hanging with you freaks at San Diego this year. That never happens. Hell, if it wasn’t for you I’d probably miss most shows.
DC: Hard to imagine San Diego this year without Justin’s sunny smile and hopeful disposition.
JP: We both collect a lot of other peoples artwork…do you have a certain dream piece of art that you would like to own?
DC: Yes. The splash page to Harvey Kurtzman’s story “Airburst”.
JP: Can people bring this Jonah Hex issue to you for a signature at the con?
DC: No. Absolutely not. That would upset me greatly.
JP: All that making sure its out the first week of July crap and now you wont sign it…what they say about you is all true!
JG: You know, The Comics Journal would love to cover you every month and I cant get the time of day from them. What am I doing wrong?
DC: Might I suggest a lavishly produced graphic novel about how miserable life was for you as a child? Find an artist who has astonishing taste that renders tables with more humanity than people. I’d say that’ll get you on the right track.
JP: That’s mine and Justin’s next project then. I knew there was some kind of trick to it. That said, I do love reading their long interviews. I learned a lot about you from the one you did this past year. Maybe too much.
JG: Oh yeah, you don’t want me throwing my childhood on paper, people will weep openly, dictatorships will crumble, serial killers will call their parents for forgiveness.
JP: I personally try almost every new character book out there…and these days most of them are published outside of the usual dc and marvel. Why do you think that is when they both can easily support this kind of publishing?
DC: Fear, comfort, complacency and sincere desire to maintain that which has been. I’d like to hear from you on this, ‘cause you’ve more experience with it. So answer your own question…for me, Jimmy. Do it for me.
JP: I personally can’t figure it out. Really. Maybe the big two are only looking at the publishing market and not worrying about the intellectual properties, I just wish they would get a bit more aggressive with their lower selling titles and let the sure fire hits do what they are going to do anyway. It’s the reason a book like Back To Brooklyn made it to Image Comics I guess. I really have no exact answer, but I do see changes and things happening for the big two that really are very positive. Change happens slowly I guess.
JG: Money kids, pure and simple, known commodities outsell the unknown, but there are tons of bright people doing great work in and out of the cape and tights genre.
JP: O.K., a few more quick ones… beach or forest?
DC: Whichever one has a cocktail lounge.
JG: That’s why we get along so well.
DC: Butter or margarine?
JP: Butter each and every time…I am going to die anyway, so why would I want my toast to taste like the drool of butter?
JP: Favorite movie?
DC: Such a question, boychick. Here’s my answer and it should make sense when you consider you can only pick one for your entire lifetime: The Wizard of Oz.
The first movie to scare me, ignite my imagination, show me color. Hooked me for life.
JG: That’s funny, 21Down riffed some of the horror elements from the scarecrow song. Swear to God. Listening to The Wizard of Oz soundtrack and writing slasher stories is a purifying experience.
JP: For me, Planet of the Apes. I love those damn dirty apes.
JG: I can never pick a favorite anything.
JP: Worst comic character?
DC: Ben Stiller. He’s so not funny.